Have you ever gone to see a movie that has been raved up for years and then doubted your better judgment when you weren’t crazy about the movie? That’s what happened to me when I viewed the much-revered silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera for the first time.
(Brief synopsis: Erik [Lon Chaney] has been hiding out in the bowels of the Paris Opera House for years because he is ashamed of his disfigured face. However, Erik has designs on an up-and-coming opera singer named Christine [Mary Philbin], and he will do anything to both further Christine’s opera career [rival singers be damned] and win Christine’s love despite his physical appearance.)
Fortunately, I have Fritzi, who runs the blogs Movies Silently, as my blogging “neighbor.” I quickly consulted her entry on Phantom (click here if you’d like to read it for yourself), and much to my relief, she pretty much agreed with me: The movie is good but not a masterpiece, Chaney does an amazing job with both his makeup and his acting, and Philbin is fluttery and just this side of over-the-top.
However, my major hangup with the movie is in one of its major plot points, which I would imagine is a carryover from the original novel. (MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on!)
The movie’s money shot is when Christine surreptitiously removes Erik’s mask (despite his previous command not to do so) and gets a full view of Erik’s face. This is the shot on which the rest of the movie hinges, and when the movie was first released, Chaney was careful not to take any publicity photos that would show him in full Phantom make-up so as to build the audience’s shock at the unveiling. Mission accomplished. It’s still a pretty powerful moment.
What really bothers me is that the moment is taken at face value. In other words, Christine uncovers Erik’s face, and this drama queen’s first reaction is basically, “Whew, he ugly! Gotta avoid him like the plague!”, as if she was a high-school cheerleader who just got asked to the prom by the class nerd.
Since I am of the era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — a movie wherein an initially monstrous figure is shown to be human like the rest of us — Christine’s attitude really puts me off. It’s later revealed that Erik, while a musical genius, is also an escaped prisoner from Devil’s Island. The movie showed Christine as having been fascinated by Erik at first. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Christine smitten with this man and his offbeat behavior and looks, only to find out later how dangerous he is? Instead, the story takes the easy route and instantly equates physical ugliness with supreme villainy.
I suppose movie buffs will chastize me for applying contemporary sexual politics to a 1925 movie. But it makes me think that when modern-day moviegoers scoff at silent film in general, it might not be only the antiquated technology they’re pooh-poohing. Maybe it has something to do with the way those movies look down their noses at the more underprivileged among us.